As he left London Gatwick Airport one early January afternoon in 1999, bound for wintry Detroit, car design-er Ian Callum had no way of knowing he was joining thousands of his peers on a journey into frozen hell.
Callum, now head of global design for Jaguar, then was working as a freelance designer for Aston Martin. Like many other travelers who converged on the Detroit auto show from all parts of the world, Callum would never forget that year's thumping blizzard, which threatened to cancel the show.
The epic snowstorm wreaked havoc on show logistics and gave the city a black eye for its lack of preparation. But somehow the North American International Auto Show soldiered on and perhaps became stronger as a result.
For Callum, the first sign of trouble came when his Northwest Airlines flight was diverted to Washington, D.C., because landing in Detroit was impossible. After a night in a Washington hotel, Callum and other Detroit-bound passengers tried again.
"It was utter chaos," Callum recalled. "We took back our checked bags and put them on the Detroit conveyor belt. The assumption was they would be checked to the right place."
That incorrect assumption was the first of a string of problems Callum and other show-goers would endure.
Upon landing in Detroit, he said, "All we saw was the most incredible pile of snow I'd ever seen."
Among the early disasters: Six hours waiting for a gate for the plane; three hours waiting for luggage that never arrived; and a shuttle bus that got hopelessly lost because the driver couldn't make out a single landmark, finally depositing Callum at the Westin Hotel -- which had given away his room.
This tale was repeated countless times in various forms as executives, journalists and support staff found their itineraries completely undone by massive snowdrifts and wind-chill temperatures of 30 below zero. So many Toyota executives had their commercial flights reversed to Los Angeles that Toyota chartered its own plane to Detroit.
The blizzard turned into an embarrassment for the city, which was caught woefully unprepared. Reporter Keith Bradsher of The New York Times reported that Detroit "has just 59 snowplows, compared with 750 in Chicago, whose area is just slightly larger." To compound Mayor Dennis Archer's political woes, President Bill Clinton, then mired in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, announced he would tour the auto show.
"We had to clear the top of the building," says Rod Alberts, executive director of the auto show, referring to the Cobo Hall rooftop parking lot. "Nobody could park on it because the president was coming."
Ian Adcock, writing for The Times of London, noted the contrast between the new-vehicle introductions inside Cobo and the mayhem outside.
"While manufacturers unveiled one concept car after another in an attempt to show they had more toys in their corporate cupboards than their rivals, Cobo Hall was marooned in a maze of frozen streets jammed with broken-down trucks, abandoned cars and MPVs stuffed into snowdrifts at crazy angles."
Another snowdrift victim, Richard Parry-Jones, then Ford's global head of product development, believes 1999 marked a turning point for the Detroit show -- as the organizers and manufacturers prevailed over adversity.
"It was a good show, in spite of a slightly inauspicious start," Parry-Jones recalled. "It caused everyone to raise their game."
By the way, Callum finally got his suitcase, on his doorstep in England -- two months later.